Thursday, June 17, 2010

Perfectly Imperfect

SlapShot column published June 10 in the Woodford Sun

Life is messy.

And for all of our technological advancement, for all of our accumulated knowledge, for all of our yearning and striving, we’ve not been able to change that basic fact.


Things don’t turn out the way we want them to. We seldom enjoy as much control as we’d like to imagine. And when all’s said and done, life simply isn’t fair.

Just ask Armando Galarraga.

The Detroit Tiger pitcher put away 26 straight Cleveland Indian batters on June 2. No hits. No walks. No errors. The cusp of perfection. He put away number 27 too. But the one man who counts didn’t see it that way, at least not in the moment that mattered. First base umpire Jim Joyce called Cleveland Indians’ Jason Donald safe at first base.

He clearly wasn’t.

And in that moment, Galarraga stepped out of the pages of baseball history books, into the pages of baseball history books. Instead of going down as the 21st pitcher in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game, the Tiger hurler will go down as the victim of perhaps the worst call in the annals of Major League Baseball.

It was so bad, even the ump later admitted he was wrong, in a rare display of officiating humility.

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the (stuff) out of it," Joyce said, clearly distraught, after the game. “I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

We all saw the replay. Out. By almost a step.

And immediately, the calls came to set things right. Since it should have been the final out of the game, change the call after the fact. Record the play as what it was – an out at first base. And give Galarraga his perfect game.

It seems so simple. So clear cut. So right.

But stop and consider for just one moment – it really wasn’t a perfect game, was it?

Not if perfection means perfection. Joyce made the wrong call. But isn’t officiating part of the game? Doesn’t the human element ultimately rule the world of sports just like it does in “real life” ?

After Dallas Braden threw his perfect game a few weeks back, I pointed out that perfection doesn’t belong to the pitcher alone. It also belongs to every player who takes the field. It belongs to the manager. And indeed, it belongs to the umpire.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first perfect game blown up by a bad call. In 1994, one base runner marred a perfect game for Oakland A’s pitcher Bobby Witt. Greg Gagne reached on a bunt single with one out in the sixth inning. Replays show Gagne was clearly out.

Witt didn’t get his perfect game. Heck, he didn’t even get an apology.

And on it goes. How many times could we look back and say if it weren’t for this call or that call, then we’d have witnessed a different outcome?

As my stepdad often said, “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt every time he hopped.”

Officiating calls weave themselves into the fabric of a game, just like hits, tackles, goals and errors. If we start pulling at the threads by changing an outcome here and there after the fact, eventually the entire fabric falls apart.

And I think fallibility is important. The human factor makes sports interesting. Otherwise, we might as well just watch a computer game.

Imagine for a moment that Joyce made the right call. Galarraga would have gotten his perfect game. And in two years, few but the most dedicated baseball fan would likely remember the moment. Instead we got something different. Something even non-baseball fans will likely remember. A little humanity in the midst of big-time sports.

The next night, in a rematch between the Indians and Tigers, Joyce got the call as home plate ump. And Detroit manager Jim Leyland sent Galarraga out to bring the starting lineup card to the plate. The two men shook hands. Joyce patted Galarraga on the back.

“That was one of the coolest things I've ever seen,” Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. “What sets that apart from anything that's probably happened in a long time in our sport is the absolute sportsmanship of it. I'll tell you what, Galarraga and Joyce are two true gentlemen, period, in the way that they handled themselves. People will always remember that. I'll never forget it.”

Neither will I.

Quick Shots

Do you enjoy football? Can you get a video camera pointed in the right direction? If so, the Woodford County High School football team could use your help. Coach Steve Stonebraker is looking for filmers for summer practices and games. Summer practices will begin at 6 in the evenings. If interested contact Stonebraker at

Speaking of summer practices, Jay Lucas had a little smile on his face after the Woodford County High School girls’ basketball team kicked off its summer scrimmages with four W’s. On June 3, the Lady Jackets beat Boyle County 36-19 and then topped Madisonville 49-32. On June 5, Woodford pummeled West Jessamine 53-18 and then whipped Burgin 51-23. Mark it down now – this Lady Jacket squad will make some noise next season.

Quote of the Week

“It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family - tells him what to do. So, it’s probably not his fault.” – NASCAR driver Joey Logano talking about Kevin Harvick after Harvick spun the No. 20 out during the June 6 Sprint Cup race at Pocono.

Puck to the Head

This week’s puck flies at the head of the goalie playing against my team in a tournament down in Knoxville on June 6 for the worst display of sportsmanship I’ve ever witnessed in person. After the referee failed to blow a play dead, resulting in a goal for Lexington, the Gangrene goalie (yes, that was the name of his team, which should tell you something) launched into a profanity laced tirade that could have blistered the ears of a sailor. Next, he proceeded to follow the ref to the bench, dropping his gloves, (international hockey language for “We’re gonna fight.”) and continuing to creatively string together obscenities. Then he chest butted the ref. To his credit, the stunned official kept his cool and calmly ejected the unhinged netminder. About five minutes later, the nutcase came out of the locker room, half undressed, to continue his tirade. Somebody dragged him away before cops were called. After the game, I saw the guy in the parking lot. He was with his wife and infant son. She must be so proud. I was not surprised to see him wearing a Boston Red Sox jersey.

Friday, June 11, 2010

So many ways to look at the Eric Bledsoe situation

Originally published in the Woodford Sun on June 3, 2010

Well, it sure didn’t take long for the wispy smoke of suspicion to blanket the Bluegrass State.

Is a conflagration closing in?

Last week, the New York Times ran a story revealing an NCAA investigation into possible violations surrounding the recruitment of former University of Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe. Suspicion surrounds an amazing academic turnaround during Bledsoe’s senior year in high school, along with allegations that his high school coach paid his mother’s rent and demanded cash payments from schools pursuing the Birmingham A.H. Parker High School star prior to his signing with UK.

According to reports, Brenda Axle, the landlord for the house Bledsoe lived in during his senior year, says A.H. Parker coach Maurice Ford paid four months rent totaling $1,200.

The UK guard’s transcripts also tell an unlikely tale. Going into his final year of high school, Bledsoe had a grade point average in core courses of about 1.9. To reach NCAA eligibility, he had to bring his GPA up to 2.5. A compliance officer said it wasn’t an impossible achievement, but would take an “extraordinary senior year academically” to reach the minimum NCAA qualification.

Finally, the New York Times reports an unnamed coach who recruited Bledsoe claims Ford told his staff that he needed a specific amount of money to let Bledsoe sign.

Ford denied the allegations, telling the Times, “I don’t prostitute my kids.” UK says it did nothing wrong, pointing out that the NCAA Eligibility Center cleared Bledsoe. Kentucky coach John Calipari? Well, he hasn’t said much of anything.

This story makes me feel a little bit like a spectator at a tennis match. The ball can bounce so many ways and spin in a multitude of directions. It makes for a number of “on the one hand, but on the other hand” scenarios.

On the one hand, no indication exists that Calipari did anything wrong. And in fact, he was never directly implicated in any NCAA investigations, even though Calipari-led Memphis and UMASS teams had to vacate wins due to rules violations.

Many in the sports world (UK fans call them haters) are quick to cast aspersions on the Wildcat skipper, assuming that he cheats because: A. He demonstrates uncanny and unbelievable success landing top recruits and B. NCAA investigators seem follow him like a mutt tracking a man with a steak in his pocket. A strong circumstantial case to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s fair to condemn the man without proof of his guilt.

On the other hand, how much billowing smoke does it take before we finally admit a fire is blazing nearby? And smoke surrounds Calipari in the same way it fills a cigar bar in downtown Tampa.

Not once. Not twice. No – three times NCAA investigators have descended upon programs coached by Calipari. It only took a year for them to make their way to Lexington. In case you folks wearing Big Blue glasses haven’t noticed, there is one common denominator here.

On the one hand, UK points out that the NCAA cleared Bledsoe to play college hoops. Kentucky’s defense seems to rest upon this fact.

“He was academically cleared. That’s all, from a university standpoint, we can go on. That’s what the NCAA Clearinghouse is for,” Stephen Branscum, vice president of the UK Board of Trustees, said.

On the other hand, this sounds a whole lot like Memphis’s argument in the case of Derrick Rose. And that didn’t work out so well for them.

On the one hand, if Bledsoe’s high school coach did pay rent for the family, you have to have a little sympathy for the situation. The kid was dirt poor. According to reports, he spent a lot of time sleeping on friends’ and relatives’ couches as his mother struggled to make ends meet. High school coaches are often closer to their players than anybody. They sometimes serve as father figures. They get an up-close and personal look at the circumstances that define these kids' existence. From a human standpoint, can you really blame a man for reaching out to help a poor kid’s family when facing eviction and homelessness?

Ford even alludes to this in the New York Times story, saying he did nothing wrong.

“I’m a poor black man. And when one black man tries to help another black man, there’s always something wrong.”

On the other hand, if Ford paid the rent, there is definitely something wrong. Rules are rules, and high school coaches can’t go around paying expenses for players. Under NCAA rules, a coach paying a student’s family’s rent would be considered an impermissible benefit. Good intentions or not, it’s against the rules. Period. So, find another solution to the kid’s problem.

And the cynic in me could easily conclude that Ford was an opportunist, looking to squeeze a little cash out of a cash cow that landed in his back yard. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but if Ford really demanded payments from coaches in return for Bledsoe’s signature, it takes a few steps beyond tacky.

Only time will tell how this will all pan out. Personally, I can’t help but think that it won’t turn out well for Kentucky fans. Guilty or not, it looks like Kentucky has landed itself in a pickle.

Quick Shots

Did you see Mike Conway crash during the final lap of the Indianapolis 500? Conway’s car went airborne and exploded into a bajillion pieces. My 10-year-old son saw a replay of the crash when we were out eating. His eyes went wide. “He’s dead,” Brendan said matter-of-factly. But Conway wasn’t dead. He did suffer multiple breaks in his leg and a compression fracture of the spine, but he’s still living and breathing. The fact that the driver survived such a horrific wreck stands as a testament to the safety features built into modern race cars. Pretty amazing.

Perfection. Twice in one year. Just weeks after Oakland A’s pitcher Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game, Roy Halladay repeated the feat. The Florida Marlins’ hurler threw 115 pitches and struck out 11 batters, as Florida topped the Philadelphia Phillies 1-0. It’s the first time in MLB history that there were two perfect games in the same season. Also, pretty amazing.

Speaking of smoke and fire, will they actually prove the latest doping violations against bicycle racing phenom Lance Armstrong? Former U.S. Postal Service teammate Floyd Landis claims he used performance enhancing drugs with Armstrong.

Quote of the Week

“I don't think there's anything a guy like me can say to congratulate a star of his level.” – Oakland A’s pitcher Dallas Braden, who pitched the 19th perfect game in Major League Baseball history on why he didn’t call Roy Halladay after he threw the 20th perfect game less than three weeks later.

Puck to the Head

This week’s puck flies at the head of former NBA and UK basketball star Antoine Walker – again. This time for filing for bankruptcy. It’s not so much that he went bankrupt. It’s that he earned multi-millions of dollars playing a game and then went bankrupt. Walker is no stranger to financial woes. Last November, he agreed to pay back $900,000 so settle Las Vegas bad check charges connected to gambling. Hmmm … I wonder if the gambling might have something to do with those financial woes.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pulling for the underdog

A reprint of my April 8 column from the Woodford Sun

Butler got its foot all the way into the slipper.

But at the last possible second, the glass shattered, littering the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium with shards of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Championship Fairy Tale.

As the clock struck zero, the ball sailed through the air. A bounce. Off the backboard. A bounce. Off the rim. A final of couple of bounces on the hardwood and it was over.

Duke fans celebrated.

Most everyone else flipped off their television sets with a sense of sadness.

Without a doubt, the majority of fans were pulling for Butler. That little school in Indianapolis wormed its way into the consciousness of college basketball fans across the Fruited Plain with an impressive NCAA run. Well over 90 percent of the respondents to a poll said they were pulling for the Bulldogs. Sure, one could chalk that up to a visceral hatred for Duke around these parts, but I have a feeling the results wouldn’t have been a whole lot different in any other part of the country – save along North Carolina’s Tobacco Road.

We love underdogs.

People naturally pull for the little guy. And the Bulldogs were the quintessential David facing Goliath (aka Duke). Butler, a small private school with an enrollment of 4,200, faced an NCAA basketball perennial power. According to Darren Rovell of CNBC Sports, last year Duke spent $394,068 per player on expenses. Butler spent $347,108 – total. As in player expenses for the whole program.

Yes, we love to pull for that underdog.

Some of the most compelling stories in sports revolve around the little guy knocking off the big boys – North Carolina State upsetting Houston in the 1983 NCAA title game, the United States beating the USSR in the 1980 Olympics, the Joe Namath led New York Jets knocking off the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

When the commoner comes away with the crown, it gives the rest of us a little glimmer of something we all yearn for, something we desperately need.


Most of us view ourselves as relatively common folk. And day after day, we beat our heads against institutions and obstacles that seem to intentionally conspire to thwart our success. Government red tape. Mean spirited bosses. Financial setbacks. It creates a sense of powerlessness, a feeling that we will never find the means to rise above the challenges and attain the lofty goals we set for ourselves.

But when a school like Butler comes onto the scene and starts knocking off the giants, we sit up and take notice. And it serves as a reminder that we can triumph – we can overcome. No matter how the system may stack up against us, if we persevere, work hard and keep pushing, we too can reach the Promised Land. The Butlers of the world remind us of the possibilities in our own lives.

There’s another lesson if we dig a little deeper. Overcoming takes a lot of work and a healthy dose of persistence. The Bulldogs have been building toward this Final Four appearance for years. While they popped onto most fans’ radar only recently, Butler has quietly built a solid program over the last several years. The Bulldogs made the NCAA tourney nine of the last 14 years. They reached the Sweet 16 three times in the past eight years. And they did it the hard way: developing players that the bigger programs overlooked, emphasizing basketball fundamentals and with some good old fashioned hard work.

The Butler program didn’t give up when it didn’t immediately succeed. It didn’t make excuses and whine about the unfairness of the system. It didn’t fold up camp after its first tourney exit. They pressed on. The fought on. The struggled on,

So Butler offers us hope. The little guy doesn’t finish last.

But Butler also offers a challenge. The Bulldogs remind us to keep fighting, to keep working and to press onward.

Quick Shots

When West Virginia senior Da’Sean Butler went down late in the Mountaineers’ NCAA semi-final match-up against Duke, WVU coach Bob Huggins rushed onto the court to comfort his player, who was writing in agony from what turned out to be a torn ACL. Huggins kneeled down next to Butler and enveloped him in a hug. Leaning close, to the seniors face, Huggins spoke words of comfort and remained in that position until Butler calmed down enough to come off the floor. It was one of the most tender moments I have ever witnessed during a sporting event. There was no doubting Huggins’ genuine love and concern for his player.

Here’s an amusing quote I saw after Duke won its fourth National Title. “You can't have Duke without UK.” Of course it looses a little bit considering the Cats were sitting in their living rooms watching the Dukies win it all.

In its march through the NCAA Tournament, Butler held every opponent to under 60 points – that is until the championship game. Duke scored 61.

Quote of the Week

“They write books, I read them.” – Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens, referring to the big name coaches he’s faced in the NCAA Tournament, including Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.

Puck to the Head

This week’s puck flies at the head of former major league pitcher Dwight Gooden. The 1985 Cy Young Award winner was arrested on March 23. Police say Gooden was driving his 5-year-old son to school when he rear-ended a Mercedes and then left the scene. Officers pulled him over minutes later and found his son unrestrained in the back seat. Police charged Gooden with driving under the influence of drugs, leaving the scene of an accident and child endangerment. The former major leaguer released a statement claiming he had been using the prescribed sleep medication Ambian. Just a little tip for Dwight – sleeping pills might make you sleepy.

UK's rent-a-player program

A reprint of my April 1 column published in the Woodford Sun.


That didn’t last long.

It seems like just yesterday, University of Kentucky fans were wondering how the Wildcat basketball team was going to rebuild.

Today, University of Kentucky fans are wondering how the Wildcat basketball team is going to rebuild.

True, it feels much different this year. The Cats are coming off a successful season. SEC regular season and tourney champs, 35 wins, a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. And the program has a coach known for recruiting prowess. John Calipari certainly proved that during his inaugural season in the Bluegrass.

But UK faces a mass exodus of talent. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson will almost certainly bolt for the NBA. And most pro scouts rank Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton as first round NBA picks as well.

So, Coach Cal will have to reload. And I don’t doubt that he can do it. But is this really what Kentucky fans want? A rent-a-player program? A training ground for the NBA? A string of one-and-doners walking through a blue and white revolving door?

I have to admit, even as a relatively tepid UK fan, I was getting caught up in the Cats’ NCAA tourney run. More than that, I was starting to fall for this team. In the last couple of months, the squad developed a personality. I liked it. Not just the basketball skill. I saw that in the beginning. But as the season progressed, I began to understand the characters that made the team click. Dancing Wall. Joking Cousins. Cerebral Patterson.

And then they walked out my life in a rain of West Virginia treys.

I went to bed after that loss to the Mountaineers feeling a little empty. Maybe even a little emotionally numb. It wasn’t just the loss. It was the realization that, as amazing as the season turned out, it was so fleeting, so temporary – so ephemeral.

And for all of my support of Calipari, I’m beginning to think his approach to building a team may not really turn out to be all that great. Oh, it will probably win more games than it will lose. It may even yield an NCAA championship or two. But it lacks heart. It lacks soul. It lacks substance.

A friend of mine, a lawyer out in Las Vegas, wrote the following.

"The University of Kentucky hereby agrees that the term of rental for Mr. Wall shall be one (1) year, and upon expiration of such period, the University shall return Mr. Wall in good condition, reasonable wear and tear excepted, provided that the University shall be entitled to retain all revenue generated out of or arising in connection with use of Mr. Wall during such period."

When I first read Scott’s little Facebook post, I chuckled. But as I thought about it, I realized that my buddy succinctly captured the reality of the 2009-2010 Kentucky basketball season.

This Big Blue team was never really ours.

It was a collection of players who stopped here in the Bluegrass on their way to something else. Can we really expect these kids to develop a passion for the program? Can we really believe they will truly weave themselves into the fabric of the community? Granted, they seemed to embrace Kentucky hoops, but only for a moment. And now it’s over.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, pining away for a time long gone. Perhaps this is just the reality of big time college athletics in the 21st Century. The best players chase the money to the NBA as soon as they can. And I don’t begrudge them this. So maybe Cal’s approach is the best way to win. Get the best players, utilize their services for a season or two and send them on their way.

But I’m not sure I buy it. Not anymore. After this tourney it seems a little like a get-rich-quick scheme. It promised a lot. It looked good for quite awhile. But it didn’t quite deliver, did it?

Quick Shots

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins’s record against UK skipper John Calipari stood at 7-1 going into the NCAA Elite 8 match-up between the two schools. After watching the game, I can see why. Huggins out-coached Cal. UK never adjusted defensively to the suddenly hot shooting Mountaineers. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Cal over adjusted. West Virginia hit 8-of-15 three pointers in the first half. Even so, the Cats only trailed by seven at the intermission. But UK panicked. Odds are, the typically mediocre outside shooting Mountaineers were not going to put together a repeat performance in the second half. The Cats would have likely been better served to keeping packing in the middle instead of coming out to guard the arc and opening up the paint.

Not only that, Cal’s Cats seemed flummoxed by the West Virginia 1-3-1 zone. It was no mystery that it was coming.

But hindsight is 20-20. And the truth is, UK was not going to win that game missing 13 free throws and 28 three-point attempts.

Finally, an exciting NASCAR finish that did not involve the No. 48. After losing a late lead with an ill advised pit stop. Denny Hamlin took advantage of a yellow flag, and then charged past Jeff Gordon in the final lap to win the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville. Jimmie Johnson was never a factor and finished ninth.

Here’s a little humor for you Wildcat fans. How do you know it’s spring in Kentucky? Cardinals sitting on the couch, watching Cats play basketball.

Quote of the Week

“More than anything, it's money. In this world, there's only one color that matters, and that's green.” – University of Kentucky freshman basketball player Daniel Orton (He later said in a Twitter post that he was just kidding.)

Puck to the Head

This week, pucks fly at the heads of all those University of Louisville fans talking trash after UK lost in the Elite 8. I’m all for a little friendly verbal smack down. But you should really have some high ground from which to throw your taunts. Last I checked Louisville left the party long ago, without so much as an NCAA party favor.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Something positive from big time sports

A repost of my March 25 SlapShots column published in the Woodford Sun.

Cynicism comes naturally to the sports reporter.

It seems that each week I find another negative story to focus on. Arrests. Cheating. Sex scandals. Outrageous comments.

Boorish behavior seems almost the norm for the big time athlete. And unfortunately that leads many sports fans, and detractors alike, to share the cynicism, to assume the worst. Players and coaches tend to find themselves guilty until proven innocent, especially those part of winning programs.

For all of its on court success this season, the University of Kentucky basketball team is no exception. I recently had a conversation with a colleague who insists the program is tainted and that scandal will eventually seep out of the darkest corners of Rupp Arena.

Why? Because he sees the program as a win-at-all cost organization led by a win-at-all cost coach. He reasons that the school will cut corners, recruit bad characters and ultimately mingle with the seedy cast inhabiting the shadows of big time NCAA hoops.

He might be right.

But the evidence, at least in the early going, does not support this notion,

For all of its impressive accomplishments on the court, this UK squad has matched its basketball success with equally notable “decent human being” moments off the court, outside the glare of the spotlight.

One story made national news last week. Rebekah Sims was celebrating her 16th birthday at P.F. Chang’s in Fayette Mall. Wildcat players happened to be sitting at a nearby table, celebrating their SEC Championship. When Rebekah’s older sister asked Patrick Patterson if the players would sing “Happy Birthday,” he arranged a restaurant wide serenade for the birthday girl. Then the players gave her their SEC Championship cake the restaurant had made. But it wasn’t over. About five minutes after the team left, Josh Harrellson returned and presented Rebekah with a basketball signed by the whole team.

“Do you think this would make a good birthday present?” Harrellson reportedly asked as he presented the ball from behind his back.

No, it wasn’t really a big deal. Unless you are a UK fan celebrating your 16th birthday. And that small gesture illuminates something bigger about the character of the kids playing for UK, a fact not lost on Rebekah’s dad, Brian Sims. He sent out an e-mail that ultimately brought national attention to the Cats’ little act of kindness.

“To try to debunk some of the beliefs about the team and the things they’re accused of,” Sims said. “They’re good kids. I think it’s a bad rap.”

He told the Herald-Leader he was referring to commentators’ talk about DeMarcus Cousins’ temper and the notion that UK players are thugs.

Sounds like Sims has experienced the cynicism.

It’s true; singing “Happy Birthday” and giving away a cake and ball doesn’t really prove anything. But consider this: they didn’t have to do it. The players could have easily said, “Sorry, we’re busy.” Or they could have dutifully performed the song and gotten back to their party. But they didn’t. They went above and beyond, and I think that says something about the character of these kids.

And that’s not the only story I’ve heard about UK players going out of their way to engage in a little kindness.

A co-worker had a child participating in a basketball camp at UK last fall. After a session, he and his son ran into John Wall in the hallway. The father asked Wall if he would sign an autograph for his son, who was suddenly overtaken by a fit of shyness. Wall said, “Sure,” and then bent down to face level with the awestruck little boy, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m John Wall. What’s your name?”

Here’s another. A little boy of about 5-years-old recently approached Cousins. The boy looked up and down the UK big man’s 6-foot-11 frame and finally said, “I like your socks.” Big Cuz scooped the boy up into his arms, ran his hand through the youngsters’ curly locks and said, “I like your hair.”

Small gestures to be sure. But they give us tiny glimpses of a bigger picture. And that image looks pretty good right now.

Sure, the team may eventually disappoint us. Cousins may blow a gasket and embarrass Wildcat nation. Calipari may prove himself the cheater many assume him to be. Cynicism may yet be validated.

But for now, I will give the Wildcats the benefit of the doubt. I will assume the best. And I will enjoy a wonderful moment for the state and the university.

After all, what fun is cynicism, really?

Quick Shots

This year’s NCAA Tournament gods seem intent on mocking my column last week, in which I pooh-poohed low seed teams’ chances to win in the Big Dance. Fifteen lower seeded teams won games in the first two rounds. That said I still don’t support expanding the tourney field and thus expanding the rewards of mediocrity.

The University of Kentucky showed up to the tourney with the one thing needed to make it a nightmare for every other NCAA team pursuing that elusive National Championship – an outside shooting game. In the first two games of the tournament, UK blistered the nets from behind the arc, hitting 22-of-54 3-pointers. (What happened against West Virginia?)

A chill still hangs in the air, but the Woodford County High School baseball and softball teams kicked off the 2010 season the week of March 21. That means warm weather can’t trail far behind.

Jimmy Johnson won – again. The 48 drove to victory on Bristol’s short track. I vacillate between hating Jimmy for his dominance and loving him for his excellence.

Quote of the Week

“To be honest, he’s a terrible trash talker. I mean, that was the worst job I’ve seen in my life. He just kept saying the same thing over and over. Come with a momma joke or something.” – DeMarcus Cousins on Wake Forest center Chad McFarland.

Puck to the Head

This week’s puck flies at the head of aforementioned Wake Forest center. McFarland refused to shake hands with Cousins before the Cats’ second round game against the Demon Deacons. I understand the trash talking and physical play that McFarland is known for. It’s designed to throw an opponent off and get under his skin. It’s all part of the game. But the pre-game handshake refusal crossed the line. McFarland proved he isn’t the savvy player he’d like you to think. He’s just a tall skinny jerk.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Did refs steal the game?

My March 11 SlapShots column printed in the Woodford Sun.

The players and coaches all saw it.

The fans packing McBrayer Arena on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University saw it.

And the 10,000 plus people logging onto to watch the game live or view the replay saw it.

The only ones who didn’t see it were the ones who count – the referees.

Trailing Henry Clay by one point, Franklin County High School senior Lyndon McKee collected the rebound off a missed trey and shoveled the ball back into the basket at the buzzer, giving the Flyers an apparent 1-point victory in the quarterfinals of the 11th Region Tournament.

The Franklin County celebration was short lived.

The three-man referee crew ruled the shot was taken after the buzzer. They waved the basket off. Henry Clay waved bye-bye.

A big red light comes on in the backboard when the clock strikes zero. It clearly illuminated after the shot hit the glass. The bucket should have counted.

Flyer fans, players and coaches went from stunned to livid in a matter of seconds.

“The referees blew the call. Franklin County won the game,” one Flyer supporter emphatically stated on Facebook.

He’s right on one count. The refs blew the call. They blew it bad. And the crew made it worse by refusing to utilize the available video replay to get the call right.

But the Flyers did not win the game.

Really, I checked.

And as egregious as the missed call was, I refuse to blame the refs for the Flyer loss. Franklin County must ultimately take responsibility for the outcome of its game.

Yes, the refs blew it. Yes, if the refs get that call right, the record would look a whole lot different. And yes, in a sense, the call yanked a win from the Flyers’ grasp.

But as my dad always used to say, “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt every time he hopped.”

Here’s my point. Refs mess up. We all know this. Kentucky high school officiating ranks somewhere between dismal and pathetic. But ultimately, a team must accept responsibility for its performance on the court or field. So, if you don’t want the refs to determine the outcome of a game, don’t put yourself in a position to allow the refs to determine the outcome of the game.

Franklin County put itself in that position and it got burned.

Consider this: Michael Samples missed both of his free throw attempts. He hits one, the game’s tied.

Or this: Brandon Jennels shot 0-for-9 from the field. He hits just one basket, the Flyers win.

Or even this: Henry Clay’s Wes Kimball stole the ball and hit a layup with 25 seconds to go in the game. Hold on to the ball, Flyers, and it’s you advancing to the semi-finals.

I could go on. Literally hundreds of factors work together throughout the course of a game to determine the outcome. That final call looms large because it was the final call, and it stands out in the minds of players and fans. But the officials didn’t singularly determine the game’s outcome, any more than any of the factors I just mentioned, or the hundreds that I didn’t.

And I believe another thing makes us quick to pin the loss on the backs of the refs. We live in a society that seeks first to place blame and hesitates to take responsibility. It’s a whole lot easier to play the blame game than it is to look into the mirror and admit that we didn’t quite play well enough to win.

Franklin County lost the game. Did the Flyers play well enough to win? Not quite. Did they deserve to win? No.

Franklin County put itself in a position to allow the refs to determine its destiny. Next time, don’t do that. Hit those free throws. Protect that ball. Drain those shots. Play better defense.

Because excuses don’t show up on the stat sheets.

Quick Shots
Lady Jacket Alyssa Lucas finished the season ranked fourth in the state in 3-point shooting. The Woodford County junior hit 78 threes off 203 attempts. She averaged 2.8 made treys per game. Lucas actually hit one more than Kasey Young of Danville, who holds the number three spot. But Young played two fewer games. Lucas has made 152 career threes, placing her fourth on the all time list at Woodford County High School. Brittany Henderlight holds the school record for career made threes with 216.

Lucas was Woodford County’s representative on the 11th Region All Tournament Team.

Boy, NASCAR sure did back itself into the corner. As the 2010 season kicked off, NASCAR announced that it was loosening rules on bumping and aggressive racing, hoping to inject more excitement into the sport. The rule was also widely interpreted to mean drivers had a little more leeway to police themselves on the track. Well, it sure worked. During the Kobalt Tools 500, Carl Edwards took matters into his own hands and intentionally wrecked Brad Keselowski, continuing a long running feud between the two drivers. And Keselowski deserved it. The No. 12 has left a trail of wreckage in his wake since moving up to the Sprint Cup Series. He wrecked Edwards last year at Talladega and caused a wreck that knocked the No. 99 out of most of last week’s race. But not even Edwards expected the nasty crash that occurred, with Keselowski's car flipping into the air and crashing into the fence upside down. Keselowski took exception.

“To come back and intentionally wreck someone, that's not cool -- you could have killed someone in the grandstands," Keselowski said. "It will be interesting to see how NASCAR reacts to it. They have the ball. If they're going to allow people to intentionally wreck each other at tracks this fast, we will hurt someone either in the cars or in the grandstands.”

Well, NASCAR reacted harshly. On March 9, it handed down a three-race probation. So apparently NASCAR wants to put the genie back in the bottle. In the meantime, I’ll be watching next week to see who Keselowski wrecks.

Quote of the Week
“We have so much growing up to do. I’m really worried on that front. If we’re not changing, we’re going into that big tournament where we are. And that’s worrisome to me.” – University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari.

Puck to the Head
This week’s puck flies at the head of Ben Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback is being investigated for sexual assault. Again. This time the alleged assault took place at a Georgia night club. Roethlisberger has also been sued by a woman who claims he raped her at a Lake Tahoe hotel back in 2008. Really, Ben? I wouldn’t think it would be that hard for you to get a date.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The nature of a miracle

A reprint of my SlapShots column published Feb. 25 in the Woodford Sun

Monday, Feb. 22, marked the 30th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice.” That day, the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team, made up completely of amateur college players, defeated the mighty Soviet team at Lake Placid in the 1980 Winter Games.

The day before the anniversary, the current U.S. squad pulled off a pretty big upset, beating favored Canada 5-3 in an Olympic preliminary round match-up in Vancouver.

As the Canadians seem compelled to remind us, hockey is their game. And as annoying as that statement has become, it contains some truth. The Great White North birthed the sport, and despite the inroads American and European players have made over the years, Canadians dominate the National Hockey League. Canada stacked its Olympic squad with NHL firepower and star power, and they remain heavily favored to win the gold on their home ice.

But the young, spunky American squad skated into the Olympics with a chip on its shoulder, and the Americans pulled off the upset. It’s a poignant reminder that a collection of all-stars doesn’t necessarily equal a great team.

Make no mistake – this was a huge win for the Americans. It was the first victory over a Canadian Olympic team since 1960. And it came on Canadian home ice, in an arena overflowing with a hostile crowd. On the upset scale, it was something akin to Gardner-Webb knocking off UK at Rupp.

Seriously – it can happen.

Still, some pundits have gotten a little carried away with the U.S. win.

Perhaps it’s the proximity to the anniversary. Perhaps it’s the fact that the average American instantly associates hockey with the upset of the Russians. Perhaps it represents some desire to recapture the past or generate some buzz. Whatever it is, some commentators have tried to tie the upset of Canada to the Miracle game of 1980.

Sorry – not even close.

First off, you just can’t equate one squad of NHL players beating a slightly better squad of NHL players with the history-making upset of the Soviet machine. Every player competing in last week’s game between Canada and the U.S. plays in the NHL. But that 1980 team was all amateur. Just a bunch of kids really. And the Soviets? Well yes, they were all amateur too.

*wink-wink, nudge-nudge*

In fact, that Soviet squad whipped the NHL All Star team in the months before the Olympics. They were, in essence, a professional team, and some still argue that the Soviets fielded one of the best hockey teams ever assembled.

But the thing that truly set that 1980 Olympic match-up apart from every other sporting event was its time and place. It was the rare sporting event that transcended sport. Al Michaels summed up the significance of the game in the opening moments of the TV broadcast.

“There’s a lot of people in this building who do not know the difference between a blue line and a clothesline. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter because what we have, have had, is the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, I’m sure this game is being viewed with varying perspectives. But manifestly it is a hockey game. The United States and the Soviet Union on a sheet of ice in Lake Placid, New York.”

Indeed, it was merely a hockey game. But for a Cold War era America desperately looking for some sense of optimism, for a reminder of her greatness, for some sign that she would prevail – the game meant much more.

And so an amazing triumph, a bunch of college kids beating the Soviet hockey juggernaut, dramatic in its own right, became something much bigger. It captured an entire country’s imagination. It united a nation. It renewed a sense of pride and hope in the United States.

And it stands as arguably the greatest sports moment in history.

As a hockey fan, I can only hope that the current U.S. squad generates half the interest as the 1980 team. But as big of an upset as the win over Canada was, it received far less attention, and as I type this, the news cycle has moved along to the next big thing.

But that 1980 game … that one lives on. It reminds us that sometimes the little guy triumphs. It reminds us of the power of “team.” And it serves to remind us that sometimes miracles happen.

Do you believe in miracles?

Quick Shots
Due to space and time constraints, I don’t normally give a lot of coverage to junior varsity squads. But the girls’ basketball JV team deserves some ink. The Jackets obliterated Paris 46-11 on Feb. 19 to end its season with a 20-1 record. The only defeat came against Franklin High, and Woodford avenged that loss in the JV District Tournament. Down 27-19 with 1:30 to go, the Jackets scored 11 straight points to pull of a 30-27 win. Shannon McClintock served as the team captain. Chelsey Ford was the leading scorer averaging 12.3 points per game. Jessica Morgan dominated inside as the leading rebounder, averaging just fewer than 10 per game. Shelby McDonald and Anastayzia Reed also started, while Hannah Worrell and Alicia Miller were the first two subs off the bench. Emily Harlow, Emma Kroger, Jamie Muth, Leah Shelton, Audrey Swindell and Bethany Walton all played on the team. Congrats girls!

Here we go again. Jimmy Johnson won another race, taking first at Fontana. It was the 48th career win for the No. 48.

Congrats to the WCHS cheerleaders for their fifth place finish at State!

Quote of the Week
“That elephant on their back just got a little heavier.” – NBC commentator on the pressure team Canada must be feeling after losing to the U.S. on its home ice.

Puck to the Head
This week’s puck flies at the head of Russian figure skater Evegni Plushenko for whining after American Evan Lysacek beat him out for the gold medal. Plushenko apparently felt entitled to the gold simply because he can do a quadruple jump. Never mind that he teetered his way though his program while Lysacek skated nearly flawlessly. “Quad is quad. If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I don’t know,” Plushenko said sniveling. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating. It’s dancing, that’s my point.”
Looks to me like ya got beat by a dancer, Plushenko
That’s my point.